“I’m not going to beat around the bush, unfortunately we have found cancer.”
Those were the words my breast cancer consultant used October 20th, 2016. He was the same breast cancer consultant who had told my mum the same thing just six months earlier. In that split second, as I sat with my younger brother and best friend, listening to the doctor’s declaration, I knew my life as I knew it would never be the same again.
Wait. Hold on – me? Are you kidding me? I’ve only just turned 31 for fuck’s sake! I wasn’t expecting this – I didn’t see it coming. I thought the lump was a cyst. Mum has had this twice – the second diagnosis was just a few months ago. My uncle’s wife and my next-door neighbour have also been diagnosed?!! And now me?? What the fuck?? Am I gonna die?? My life is over…
Because, you see, after they inform you about the cancer, they tell you a whole heap of other information in the appointment that you have to somehow digest. For example, what the best course of treatment is for the type of breast cancer they have found – yes there are types. (Breast cancer treatment has advanced so much over the years that the dreaded chemotherapy isn’t the only option. Other anti-hormone drugs, with fewer side effects, are also widely available if your cancer is receptive for this.) I was told (one might say – unluckily) that the recommended course of treatment for my cancer was a drug called Herceptin, which is only licensed in this country to be given alongside chemotherapy.
Oh no. What about uni? What about work? Am I going to lose my hair?
Then there was the surgery talk and what the best course of treatment was for me – full removal of my breast (a mastectomy)? Lump removal (a lumpectomy)? They told me the worst of it – the cancer wasn’t present in just one lump, there were many particles surrounding the main one, so a full mastectomy of my right breast was the best course of action. I remember in that appointment saying, “Just take it off – I just want them both off. I want the cancer gone.” But as I learnt, it wasn’t as simple as that…next up on the consultant’s agenda was the fact my mum has had breast cancer twice. Her first diagnosis was at 35, a similar age to me. I was told to consider genetic testing – which, I was told, would provide me with more options when it came to the surgery, as I needed to think about the potential of it coming back in the future, like it had with my mum. Then the issue of my fertility came up. I was told that because of my age, the chemo would probably stop my periods and these would take a while to come back and could make it difficult for me to conceive. As I don’t have children I had an option to freeze my eggs.
This is too much for me right now – why didn’t I have children sooner? Why didn’t I settle down when I had the chance?
Lastly, I was told they needed to check whether the cancer had spread and establish the specific size/grade of it. Appointments to determine all this would follow. To top all this off, I was asked to do a blood test before I left to check whether they could perform an MRI.
Wait, spreading? Blood test? I just want to go home. I can’t handle this. I can’t even breathe, let alone make it to the blood-testing ward.
The appointment was over. I met my allocated breast care nurse and somehow found the strength to do my blood test. I told my brother to go to the car and tell my mum, who was eagerly waiting for the results like so many others I knew, what had just happened. When I saw her I broke down and we drove in silence all the way home.
I spent that evening breaking the news to close family, friends and work colleagues. They hadn’t been expecting what I had to say, just as I hadn’t been. I remember saying I felt relieved because I finally knew what it was – the weeks of the unknown had been killing me. And, with all optimism in the world, I kept saying, “I’ll beat this, just like my mum.” Everyone kept asking me the same thing over and over again. “What can I do for you? Is there anything I can do for you?” I’m a person who never asks anyone for anything, but this time I made it clear to anyone who asked that I didn’t want to do this alone. My life was going to change instantly and I needed the support of my loved ones.
The very next day I managed to muster the courage to get out of bed and go to the hairdressers. On my way there my allocated breast cancer nurse called me. She mentioned that I needed to come and see her on the Tuesday, the MRI scan was booked for the Wednesday and then another appointment to get the results of the MRI had been arranged for the Thursday.
Wait, results? Results of what? Spreading? Oh no, I can’t do this. I really can’t do this after all. I hate that word results.
More uncertainty…I spent my whole hairdresser’s appointment crying.
The weekend and week that followed, although still a blur even now, were the most horrendous of my life. In a nutshell, I couldn’t eat and had sleepless nights full of anxiety and panic attacks. I couldn’t sleep by myself, as I often woke up sweating and panting. Whenever anyone asked me what was wrong, I just kept crying and saying, “I can’t do this, I can’t do this. I know I’m strong and have been through so much already, but I can’t do this one.” I was a fun-loving, happy, award-winning, successful and not to mention fit 31 year old. I had worked extremely hard over the previous five years to reach a place of happiness. As a regular sufferer of depression, I was finally getting over a really bad break up with my childhood sweetheart of 10 years, which had left me in ruins, had revisited the past to finally get proper counselling over a sexual abuse case I was involved in as a child, was helping my mum get over breast cancer for the second time and on top of that I had just released my first book detailing my personal and business life so far as a result of these traumas. I’d given hints and tips to other sufferers. Now I was asking, why me? Why now? It had taken me a while, but I was finally finding my feet in life. I had just started a university course that I loved, which I’d had to defer for a year. Also, this was my BIG 15! My 15th year running the community dance business I’d started when I was 15. I’d planned a big party at the end of the year, but these plans had to be cancelled. In addition, I had to hand over the business to my admin assistants. I literally had to change my work-life pattern overnight. I could barely walk, as I had no energy – the feeling of uncertainty and stepping in the unknown was weighing me down and I was losing the will to live. The same bleak thoughts overran my mind. Was this my death sentence? Was this my time? Was I being punished? I felt totally isolated and alone – I didn’t know how I was going to overcome this one; it was beyond me.
Having to tell people was very hard. I remember looking in my diary as I prepared to cancel or rearrange the things I had coming up. I hadn’t realised how many sets of wonderful people I worked with or how much I had actually booked in to achieve by the New Year. Being an entrepreneur this was something I was used to, but I had so many people to tell and getting through that list was traumatising. The same questions came back. “What stage is it at?”/“What grade is it?”/“What’s the next process?”/“What treatment are you having?”/“Oh no, you have to have chemo?”/“I really feel for you, I’m
Sorry?” Blah, blah, blah. As much as I know there was no bad feeling behind any of the questions, they really didn’t help, so I stopped answering phone calls. I came off all social media platforms and stopped replying to text messages. This was something I would never normally do, but it was selfish decision in order to keep my mental stability intact.
Going back to the hospital brought out the worst overall feeling for me – it reminded me of the week before and the process I had gone through to be tested, which wasn’t pleasant at all. But I needed to find the strength to go back to the hospital to meet my breast cancer nurse, then do the MRI and then finally meet my consultant to get the results. I couldn’t find the air to breathe to take even the smallest of steps and I looked a mess (I admit, I was forgetting to take a daily bath, was wearing the same clothes day in, day out and combing my hair had become a thing of the past.) Thankfully, I made the first two appointments on the Tuesday and Wednesday. But on the dreaded results day, I crumbled. I tried going for a walk with a friend, but I had no energy. I kept breaking down.
What’s going to happen? What if it has spread? I don’t want to die. I don’t want to be sick. I don’t want to be in pain. I can’t do this?
My mum, older brother and one of my mentors came to the hospital with me, and they could sense my discomfort. I think everyone in that waiting room could sense it. Then the consultant called me in. Deep breaths. Right, let’s go. It helped that she knew my mum, and she went on to explain the results from the MRI, which showed that although the tumour was very large – 5-6cm in size – it all looked to be contained in the breast, with no initial signs of spreading anywhere else. She explained again why chemo along with Herceptin was the best option for me. The plan was that we would start with eight rounds of primary chemo: one round every three weeks, along with 18-months of Herceptin. Again, this would be one round every 3 weeks. At the end of the cycle, the treatment would then be completed with an operation (the type was undetermined). In the meantime, we would look into genetic testing, my fertility and do a standard, day surgery op to check if the disease had spread to the lymph nodes in my arm. Lots more appointments were to follow, but at least we had a plan. This appointment was much better than my first one and the consultant really put me at ease. I felt better knowing there was now a plan of action. It was clear from this appointment that I had not been handed a death sentence – it was a plan of treatment to cure me so I could go on to live my life. Having my mum and brother with me (they are much stronger than me) really helped and we decided to walk home together.
Wow, my energy had returned!
My brother brought me the first meal I had actually felt like eating in a week – a chicken nugget McDonald’s meal. I remember eating three nuggets and thinking, “Ok, that’s enough.” This was surprising, bearing in mind that on many occasions I had been the person (to my shame) to purchase a 20-piece chicken nugget box – lol. Whilst we ate our Maccy D’s, my mum reminded me of her first battle with breast cancer when she was 35. A mum of 7, she had just moved to London and had no one to help look after her or us. She often went and had her chemo, took the bus home, collected my younger siblings from school and then went home and cooked the dinner. Hearing this helped me. Mum was strong and she had done what she needed to do to beat the disease. As I sat in that McDonalds, I realised I was very lucky. I still lived at home and I also had a big support network of family and friends who were all there for me. I had worked so hard over the past 15 years and got the point where my business didn’t require me to be there every day. And, although it was sad to defer uni, it would still be there when I was ready to return. As hard as it was, this was about somehow turning a negative experience into a positive one. Maybe this was happening for a reason. Maybe I would go on and live an amazing life post-treatment. Maybe this would shake my family up and my diagnosis would mean relatives would remember to get checked out for generations to come. It would have been harder for me if any of my three sisters had been diagnosed with the disease, as they all have kids.
Armed with a much better outlook on my long, scary journey ahead, one of the things that became very apparent to me was my need to conjure some serious strength, faith and belief. I had to revisit the difficult experiences I’d gone through in the past and look at what I had done to get through them. These included writing journals, keeping a track of how I felt, reminding myself of positive quotes, having regular sessions with the mentor who had become a father figure to me, and spending time with my older brother, who had so far been a rock. I’d need to take regular exercise to keep my mood up and, now more than ever, I needed to do something I had wanted to do for a long time – reconnect with God. For the first time in my life, I understood that this was one battle I couldn’t get through alone. I no longer needed to keep up appearances and be the strong person everyone had come to know.
Featured Picture: Top left- Me celebrating my 31st birthday, Top right- Me celebrating with my new Uni friends, Bottom left- Me doing an inspirational talk at my old college a few days before I was diagnosed, Bottom right- my younger brother taking selfies with my phone in the waiting room before we went in to see the consultant.